When professional golf’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open were televised from North Carolina’s historic Pinehurst No. 2 course in 2014, viewers got an unforgettable look at what is considered the future of golf courses. From a blimp high above, cameras showed a landscape not covered in the lush greenery typical of golf courses, but fairways that were streaked in browns and roughs pockmarked with stretches of exposed sand. Except for the putting surfaces, Pinehurst No. 2 looked arid. And it was all by design.
As part of a makeover to restore the course to its more traditional condition from the mid–20th century, the fairways were widened and framed with belts of sand, tufts of vegetation, and patches of pine needles, while the conventional high-grass roughs were replaced with sandscapes and native vegetation. As a result, the amount of turf needing watering dropped from 90 acres to 50 (from 36 ha to 20) and overall water use dropped by half—all while maintaining a championship-quality course.
Water conservation “is the direction the industry is going,” says Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of golf course management. “We became the poster child for doing it.”
Indeed, a new era for golf courses is emerging—one that is more sustainable and water conscious than in the past.
As drought and water supply issues become more serious, golf course designers, superintendents, and leaders of the game contend that it is no longer possible to maintain golf courses as they have been over the years—with lush green grass covering nearly every foot of space, even outside playing areas.
A rising number of golf courses have been implementing strategies to use less water or to shift to nonpotable water sources. Today’s strategies include using more drought-resistant turf grasses; replacing some grass with native plantings; installing better computer-controlled irrigation systems; increasing the use of recycled water; and in some cases, simply watering less and letting some of the grass turn brown. This has spawned the golf course industry’s current mantra: brown is the new green.
“Everyone understands water is the greatest challenge we face going into the future,” says Rhett Evans, chief executive officer of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), based in Lawrence, Kansas, outside Kansas City. “The whole golf industry in general is getting behind conservation.”
The association has surveyed operators of U.S. golf courses about water issues during the past decade. Its latest results, released last fall, determined that respondents’ courses reduced their total water use by 22 percent from 2005 to 2013. The survey also found that more than twice as many golf courses reduced their turf acreage during 2009 to 2013 as did for 2001 to 2005.
Golf courses adopting conservation measures can get special recognition: Audubon International, a Troy, New York–based nonprofit environmental education organization not affiliated with the National Audubon Society, offers certification programs for existing and new golf courses based on water conservation, chemical use, and other categories. It is much like a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) system for golf courses, and the number of courses receiving certification has more than doubled in the past decade to 956 today.
“The old days of switching on a sprinkler head and letting it run are long gone,” says David O’Donoghue, senior vice president of DMB, a developer of master-planned communities; DMB also manages golf courses in four western states—Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Utah—including the Silverleaf course in Scottsdale, Arizona, where O’Donoghue is also general manager.
The United States is not the only place where water is an issue for golf courses: last year China closed 66 golf courses to save water, and the Beijing Water Authority has required all golf courses in its region to use recycled wastewater. But the United States is at ground zero of water conservation initiatives at golf courses because it has nearly half the world’s 34,000 golf facilities, according to the R&A, the sport’s governing body based in St. Andrews, Scotland.
This issue is important for U.S. real estate because golf course consultants estimate that from 1995 through 2010, more than 80 percent of golf courses were developed as part of master-planned residential communities. Residents and golfers alike grew accustomed to scenic views of plush green areas extending all the way from the fairways to the homeowners’ back decks. Therefore, golf courses are working on making changes in water conservation that are mostly hidden or not too noticeable to golfers or homeowners.
An example is the Rancho La Quinta Country Club, located in a gated community outside Palm Springs in the heart of the California desert. One recent spring day, a drive around the courses revealed a panorama of manicured green turf, with the fairway grass one-half-inch (1.3 cm) high and roughs just one-and-a-half inches (3.8 cm) high. The club’s older Jones course—named for course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr.—requires upward of 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) of water a day, but that is still 20 percent less than it needed a few years ago, before recent water conservation efforts.
The course installed several thousand new advanced sprinklers underground and updated its computerized irrigation technology to connect with a weather station. The station, perched on a 12-foot-high (4 m) pole, uses rain, wind, and temperature readings to program the sprinkler settings so, for instance, less watering occurs before or after rain falls. In addition, the course plans this year to begin a turf-replacement program, starting with ten acres (4 ha) of grass outside playable areas that will be turned into a desert-oriented landscape requiring less water and mowing.
“As we go forward, water conservation is something that’s going to have to happen,” says Stu Rowland, Rancho La Quinta’s director of golf course operations. “If we keep operating the way we do, we’re not going to be able to sustain what we have.”
Over the years, golf courses typically have employed some wasteful water practices. Without instruments to monitor moisture or soil, courses sometimes overwatered their turf. Also, traditional sprinklers sprayed water in a full circle, which could overspray nonplayable outer areas. Overall, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a Chicago-based nonprofit water conservation advocacy organization, reported that water audits found golf courses generally used 20 to 50 percent more water than was necessary.
But water conservation at golf courses is not just about better stewardship of a precious natural resource; it is also about controlling costs. According to the GCSAA surveys, total water costs for an 18-hole golf course jumped 75 percent from a median of $13,645 in 2005 to $23,870 in 2013, with some courses in drought states paying more than $1 million a year for water.
When ClubCorp, a Dallas-based golf course management company, looks at new investment opportunities, “the very first question I ask an owner of a club is, ‘Tell me about your water situation: where do you get it and how much does it cost?’” says Tom Bennison, ClubCorp senior vice president of business development and a member of ULI’s Recreational Development Council (Gold Flight). “Water is a major, major issue today.”
It is an especially important issue at the government level. Some municipalities and even states have increasingly pushed for water-savings actions by golf courses. In the GCSAA’s latest survey, almost one-third of respondents reported having water-allocation limits, such as water districts imposing water “budgets,” with penalties for excess use.
These mounting regulations, combined with technological innovations and ever-growing pressures to reduce wasteful practices, have led to an abundance of water conservation initiatives at golf courses across the country in recent years, including turf removal and replacement, improved irrigation, and use of recycled water.
Turf removal. Turf rebates have emerged in the western United States as a popular program to help golf courses save water. Water districts or municipalities typically offer some cash incentive, usually $1 to $3 for every square foot ($11 to $32 per sq m) of turf removed, up to certain limits. This strategy supports a golf course management approach of “maintenance up the middle”—focusing irrigation and other care activities on the tees, fairways, and greens and away from roughs and nonplayable areas.
“Outer areas don’t need to be maintained at the same level as fairways and greens,” says Kimberly Erusha, managing director of the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) Green Section agronomic education division. “There are areas that should be allowed to be naturalized.”
Las Vegas’s Southern Nevada Water Authority was among the first U.S. water districts to adopt a turf-removal program. In the past dozen years, it has paid out more than $25 million, and more than 70 percent of golf courses within its boundaries have participated. Las Vegas’s Angel Park Golf Club, which consists of 57 holes spread across four courses, during the past decade has removed more than 80 acres (32 ha) of turf from areas, including its driving range, according to the water authority.
Turf replacement. The USGA has provided nearly $50 million in research grants to universities since 1983 to help develop different strains of turf grass that are more resistant to heat, insects, and fungi while requiring less water. This has led to conversion of some fairway turf to Bermuda-grass hybrids and zoysia grass, and the adoption of some native grasses in outward rough areas.
The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay course outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, switched from bent grass to ultra-dwarf Bermuda grass on the greens. This not only helped earn the course a state environmental stewardship award in 2009, but also reduced its water consumption by a reported 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) a year.
In the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, Steve Smyers, a golf course architect and president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, is designing the new Maridoe Golf Club with a focus on water-conscious turfs. The playing areas will be planted with varieties of Bermuda grass, which require less water because they handle extremely dry conditions. The roughs will be layered with native grasses such as buffalo grass and blue grama closer to the fairways and bluestem and bromus farther away.
“We want the golf holes to feel as if they’re carved into the middle of prairie,” says Smyers. “We’re integrating the golf into the native landscape setting.”
More-efficient irrigation. Newer computer-controlled systems include wireless connections to handheld soil-moisture sensors and weather-monitoring stations. With the data, software programs can automatically adjust watering levels so the systems are capable of applying water precisely where it is needed and in the amount required.
The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, began using remote sensors about four years ago to collect data on soil moisture anywhere on the course to determine where water is and is not needed. As a result, water use at the course is down 10 to 20 percent, according to the USGA.
Recycled water. Golf courses typically are not connected to municipal water systems. The largest supplies of water for golf courses are from underground wells, plus lakes and ponds on the property. One growing alternative involves use of recycled wastewater, usually piped from a nearby wastewater plant. Use of recycled water at golf courses has increased by one-third since 2005 and accounted for 25 percent of all golf course water use in 2013, according to the GCSAA. The USGA estimates that more than 1,000 courses now use this form of water in some way.
For courses using recycled water, the University of Georgia’s turf-grass breeders developed improved cultivars of seashore paspalum, a salt-tolerant grass that can be irrigated with brackish waters with little effect on turf quality. The Old Collier Golf Club near Naples, Florida, planted its tees, fairways, and greens with Georgia’s paspalum turf grass varieties because the club uses ocean water from a nearby estuary bay to irrigate the turf.
For all that is happening in the golf course industry to reduce water use, plenty of room for improvement remains.
The latest GCSAA survey showed that just one-third of responding golf courses had reduced their turf acreage through 2013, and under one-fifth had switched some turf to more drought-tolerant varieties. Overall, only 14 to 21 percent of responding golf courses had some type of plan to address water-related issues, meaning the vast majority of U.S. courses have not committed to a long-term strategy of water sustainability.
The primary reason golf courses make small efforts to reduce water use or do not do enough is the expense. The GCSAA estimates that removing turf can cost $35,000 to $40,000 per acre ($86,000 to $99,000 per ha). The Rancho La Quinta Country Club spent more than $500,000 alone on improving its sprinkler system and paid for it without increasing greens fees, counting it as a cost of doing business. But not every golf course can afford that.
Water conservation can provide a return on investment (ROI) for golf courses. Taking out turf, for instance, reduces the water bill and eliminates the need for sprinklers or fertilizers in those areas. However, the golf course industry has not quantified a standard expected monetary return.
“There’s not a typical ROI number that you can apply,” says Erusha of the USGA Green Section.
The trends affecting water use on golf courses are not drying up anytime soon. Droughts are occurring more frequently, water supply levels keep falling in many places, and government agencies are imposing more restrictions on water use, not fewer. But as golf course operators take steps on conservation, one continuing challenge is to change golfers’ expectations of a panorama of green.
“It’s an evolution of expectations,” says Evans of the GCSAA. “A lot of golfers are used to experiencing wall-to-wall green. Now you’re starting to see them understand that might not be for the best. Sometimes it can be a slow process to understand the direction we’re headed.”
Jeffrey Spivak, a senior market analyst in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, is an award-winning writer specializing in real estate development, infrastructure, and demographic trends.